“What did they live on?” said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking. “They lived on treacle,” said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.
“They couldn’t have done that, you know,” Alice gently remarked; “they’d have been ill.”
“So they were,” said the Dormouse, “very ill.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
1. The Word of the Day is Diabesity
The UK is in the midst of a public health crisis. According to the NHS’ most recent Health Survey for England 24% of men and 27% of women are obese; 41 percent of men and 31 percent of women are overweight. Obesity has increased markedly over the last twenty years. In 1996 only about 15 percent of the population was classified as obese. The change over fifty years is even more alarming. In the 1960s obesity rates were at 1 and 2 percent for men and women respectively. Since then they have increased by 1150%.
Being overweight or obese is associated with increased risk of a number of diseases, most notably diabetes. According to Diabetes UK there are currently 3.5 million people diagnosed with the disease, up from 1.4 million in 1996. Another 0.5 million are currently believed to be living with the disease undiagnosed, although recent research suggest that there might be many more than that. In 2014 a University of Leicester / University of Florida study estimatedthat a full third of the UK population has abnormally high blood sugar levels.
Such is the scale of the problem that politicians have slowly come to acknowledge it. Wherever possible they talk about the need to exercise more and leave it at that. But recently there has been talk of taxing unhealthy foods, particular foods with high sugar content.
The previous Chancellor George Osborne went as far as to announce a levy on sugary drinks. The latest government plan for action on childhood obesity tells us that they “have given producers and importers two years to lower the sugar in their drinks so that they won’t face the levy if they take action.” Meanwhile, “HM Treasury are consulting on the technical detail of the soft drinks industry levy over the summer, and will legislate in the Finance Bill 2017.” So the details haven’t been worked out yet, and where all know who lives in the details.
2. Big Food
For years now the major producers of sugary and highly caloric processed food – Big Food – have fought to keep their business model safe from state intervention. They need to sell more and more product to keep their shareholders happy. Sweet foods, particularly sweet foods that artfully integrate salt and fat, are cheap and taste good. As an added bonus, sugar in the form of fructose also seems to stimulate our appetite.
At the level of health policy, Big Food has fiercely opposed the publication of clear and authoritative recommendations on sugar consumption. There is no such thing as an unhealthy food, they say. Everything has its place in a sensible diet, even if only as an occasional treat. True, they can only hit their financial targets if we can’t control ourselves. But it isn’t their fault if we eat too many of these moreish-by-design confections.
Big Food is on the side of proverbial wisdom; everything in moderation, nothing in excess. The important thing is that we shouldn’t get fixated on a sector that, after all, provides jobs and investment. Besides, political interference with what people choose to put in their mouths is a dangerous affront to individual liberty.
This note of world-weary reasonableness is one that Big Food hits whenever it can. Critics are paranoid and guilty of myth-making. The comparison between sugar and tobacco is hysterical and unworthy of anyone who wants to be taken seriously. Besides, the data is nowhere near as clear cut as the industry’s critics make out. It’s true that people weigh more on average, but in the UK surveys tell us that we are eating far fewer calories now than in the 1970s, when obesity scarcely registered as an issue. The tight focus on diet as a driver of obesity is therefore deeply unhelpful. If only people would exercise more!
(For examples of this style of Big Food apologetics, see these two articles by Christopher Snowden of the Institute of Economic Affairs – “One fact the sugar tax report misses out: our consumption has been falling for years” and “Don’t dismiss the data: a fatter Britain really is consuming fewer calories”.)
3. Breaking the Spell of Big Food
Big Food’s resistance has been very successful at slowing down or preventing reform of the food economy. Worrying about sugar and processed food is one more flypaper for our age’s buzzing anxieties – not something that winners waste time on. Eat your salad and mind your own business is the message tirelessly conveyed to the fit and healthy. Meanwhile, the unhealthy are told with an indulgent wink that this or that treat should be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle.
Meanwhile we are gaining weight. And as we gain weight we become less healthy. Millions of us end up diabetic. In some instances this might be because, although we are eating less, we are also exercising much less. But in some cases we are gaining weight because we are eating more calories in absolute terms than people did in the past. And many of those calories are coming to us via the ingenuity of Big Food.
The discussion in its current form focuses for the most part on individual behaviour, which is how Big Food likes it. Almost all of us could eat less sugar and refined food with no ill effects. Many of us would benefit greatly from losing some weight, and the simplest way to do that is to cut down, or cut out, sugar consumption. This puts the common good at odds with the interests of a powerful industrial sector. Some of us will be able to see through the fog of misleading information and advice generated by this industry and overcome our own reluctance to forego the pleasures afforded by the technicians of mouthfeel. But, unaided, most of us will not.
Only collective action in the public interest stands a chance of improving our diet. For a start, the public must have access to clear and evidence-based guidelines on what to eat. This could be achieved by including a health advisory notice on high-sugar (including high fructose) food and drink based on NHS England’s 3og /7 sugar cubes daily limit. By all means eat a Mars bar, but you are entitled to know that, at 35g of sugar, it contains more sugar than the NHS thinks you should eat in a day. A Mars a day … is bad for you.
Much more can be done. The state needs now to take steps to reorganize the food economy so that it favours local, diverse and energy efficient production. This is not a matter of dictating to others. It is a chance for us to redesign the production and distribution of food so that stressed and time-poor people in particular have a shot at eating well. Cheaper, fresher and more nutritious food is possible. We need only begin to take the politics of food more seriously and think through how together we can change the structure of incentives that help determine what we end up eating.
At the moment the food economy is geared towards the industrial production of a small number of commodity crops. These commodities are processed into a range of branded, and often unhealthy, product lines. The apparent variety on the supermarket shelves is achieved through the ingenuity of food scientists and packaging designers, rather than at the level of the crops themselves. Non-standard items are imported, even when it would be almost farcically easy to produce them domestically. All this is not a natural outcome of market forces. It is a feature of the current subsidy regime and the extant patterns of land ownership and control. Large scale agriculture is energy intensive, environmentally damaging and supports a national diet that is killing us in large numbers.
A new food economy would bring suitable land, especially in and near residential areas, back under the control of people who live nearby, especially those who are poorly served by the current system. There would be a presumption in favour of using land rather than leaving it vacant and the tax and subsidy regime would encourage its efficient use. Users of the land would pay rent to a co-operative in which they were also voting members. These tenancies would be supplemented by common pool resources – public tool stores, market places, grazing meadows, libraries etc – as well as businesses such as fish farms, apiaries and orchards. Where necessary the regulations and subsidies that structure the food economy would be changed to remove the obstacles to small scale, diverse and highly productive farming. Everyone would be free to carry on eating junk, but they would also have greatly increased access to fresh, locally produced food at much lower prices.
None of this is particularly radical. The 1908 Small Holdings and Allotments Act required local authorities to provide land for allotments where demand existed, by compulsory purchase if necessary. There are plenty of food deserts – areas where it is difficult to find affordable, fresh fruit and vegetables – next to prime agricultural land in this country. At the moment these fields are eyed hungrily by developers who want to plant car-dependent McMansions on them.
Defenders of the existing food economy have been adept at mobilising a kind of class warfare against its critics. When a book called Fast Food Nation became a bestseller there was a flurry of books and films that explored the iniquities of Big Food. One response was to argue that these critics were middle class snobs who wanted to meddle with the food choices of the working class. In a 2004 Spiked piece Brendan O’Neill claimed that while the ostensible target of Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me might be McDonald’s:
Its real target is the people who eat in McDonald’s – the apparently stupid, fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a nutritional and calorie breakdown first. Spurlock and his ilk might hate McDonald’s, but they seem to loathe the McMasses even more.
It’s true that there is a long and inglorious history of bien pensant attempts by the rich to regulate the eating habits of the poor. We are told that one Edwardian evangelist for better living through thoughtful eating showed a roomful of East End women how to make a delicious and nutritious soup out of fish heads. At the end of the demonstration she asked whether there were any questions. “Yes,” one of the audience asked, “who ate all the fish?”
Wealthy people are sensitive to accusations of snobbery and high-handedness, not least because they are often guilty of both. It is up to mass constituencies to secure control of both food production and the common sense that shapes our diet.
A sugar tax would be yet another imposition on the poor, goes the reasoning, another attempt to reform their morals from on high. But the tax might attract greater support if the money raised was distributed back to wards and parishes in proportion, say, to the numbers of fast food outlets and off licences in them. The people who paid the most sugar tax could do what they wanted with it, having consulted with public health professionals as well as all manner of do-gooders and cranks. The people debate, publicly and privately, and then they vote. We might use the money to buy land and create an intensive, sustainable food production sector. But that would be up to us. Importantly, the collective control of a regular income stream would provide us with an experience of real and immediate self-government, for which there is a healthy and growing appetite.